Ever since the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began peace negotiations in November 2012, the Colombian public has cast a skeptical eye on the process, and rightfully so. The country has been here a few times before; all previous attempts at peace have failed.
Is it because the last three attempts to negotiate peace with the FARC have gone down in a ball of flames? Maybe. Is it because the FARC made promises that were broken? Perhaps. Is it because the Colombian military unleashed a reign of terror through right-wing paramilitaries? Could be.
Or is it simply that the Colombian people have become so used to being in a state of war that any negotiations with the FARC is just old hat? Unfortunately, history has an eerie way of repeating itself. On the off chance that the two sides do reach an agreement, what will it take to maintain the peace, and what will each side do with all of those armed young men and women with little or no marketable job skills? That is the million-dollar question.
Let’s look at the demobilization of the Colombian paramilitaries in mid-2000s. The paramilitaries, the result of militias that were formed by wealthy ranch owners in the state of Antioquia to counteract the influence of the FARC in that region, eventually grew into larger armies. At one time the largest of the paramilitary groups, the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), had nearly 20,000 members and a presence in more than 10 departments throughout Colombia. The AUC participated in every kind of human rights violation imaginable, from kidnapping, extortion, torture and rape to intimidation and mass murder. To make matters worse, they became heavily involved in drug trafficking – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually between 1997 and 2004.
It was against this backdrop that the Colombian government, then led by right-wing president Alvaro Uribe, decided to negotiate the demobilization of the AUC in 2004. The AUC had simply become too large and too dangerous for the Colombian government and its biggest supporter, the United States, to control. So, the AUC agreed to demobilize over a two-year period. While the leadership of the AUC laid down their weapons, the lower-level foot soldiers simply reformed into smaller criminal gangs now referred to as ‘Bacrims’ (or criminal bands).
These criminal gangs number anywhere from 25 to several hundred members. They tend to exert control over smaller areas throughout Colombia and continue to be responsible for extortion, drug trafficking, illegal mining and the seizure of land from poor subsistence farmers. Many of these criminal gangs collaborate with both the FARC and former paramilitaries, meaning their allegiances are fluid and go to the highest bidder.
From past experience with the paramilitaries, we can assume that any demobilization on the part of the FARC will need to include a mechanism that provides employment for its rank-and-file member if Colombia wants to prevent history from repeating itself. Even if the FARC leadership agrees to a peace deal, this does not mean that the various FARC fronts will want to give up their revenue streams from drug trafficking, extortion and illegal mining.
So, the question is, what will the average FARC fighter do after he or she has laid down their weapons?
To think that they are simply going to give up all the money they are making from the drug trade and go back to work on the farm or selling trinkets at a Bogota traffic light is a dubious notion to say the least.
One solution is to provide real hands-on job training for the demobilized fighters, such as in customer service, manufacturing or construction. These jobs will probably pay better than what the majority of the foot soldiers were receiving while in service to the FARC.
Furthermore, they won’t be subjected to the stress of constantly worrying about their safety. The majority of FARC fighters are under the age of 21, so they are still in the prime of their lives and have a lot to offer in terms of energy and physical stamina. Employment on construction projects will be a great way to release some of their youthful energy in a positive manner.
It would be naïve to think that employment and job training programs will stop criminal activity, but it is a place to start, and a simple way for many without skills to continue to make a living, to become productive members of their communities, and to give Colombia a chance to build peace and also maintain it.
Robinson Cook is the founder of the Bogota Employment Project, an initiative that helps displaced women in Bogota find employment in the informal sector. Robinson has been in Bogota for the past 3.5 years with his wife Paula and their dog Oscar.
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